New Hampshire Republicans have taken a platform stand against expanded gaming that puts them at odds with their gubernatorial nominee.
Ovide Lamontagne has said he supports a casino at Rockingham Park in Salem.
The leader of the Granite State Coalition Against Expanded Gambling is touting the Republicans’ decision over the weekend as their “strongest ever” anti-casino plank.
“Grassroots party activists have spoken clearly and forcefully against legalized casinos,” said coalition chairman Jim Rubens, a delegate at the state convention Saturday at Pinkerton Academy in Derry.
But Rep. Ken Weyler, R-Kingston, said Republicans never had a fair chance to debate because casino advocates were shut off.
“There was no fair debate. We were stymied,” Weyler said. “He can go stuff it if he thinks he has a victory.”
The platform rejects expanded gaming due to potential “negative social consequences.”
“This is nonbinding,” Rubens said. “What it means is we’re in the same place we’ve been the last 10 years. It is up to the Legislature.”
Weyler and allies wanted to get expanded gaming out of the platform’s discussion of family issues.
“This is not as harmful as someone drinking and taking it out on his family,” Weyler said.
Advocates of casino gaming – Weyler is one because of the potential for revenue that otherwise might be lost to casinos in Massachusetts – didn’t get a chance to speak.
“We never got a shot,” Weyler said, explaining that delegates were under the gun to approve a platform in a couple of hours.
Republicans admit they are deeply divided over the issue.
“It is a huge political football,” said state GOP platform committee member Biz Corrow of Sandown. “This is not even a Republican-Democratic thing. Fifty percent of both sides are for and opposed.”
Few see the platform position on gaming as something undermining Lamontagne’s bid.
“A state platform? I’m not sure how many people pay attention to that. I don’t think this will be a big obstacle for Ovide,” Southern New Hampshire University political science professor Dean Spiliotes said.
Dan Norris, a founder of the NH Casino Now group, said he was too busy putting up signs for supporters in Salem to notice the GOP decision.
“The number is more than 200 now,” Norris said.
“The people of Salem, the Salem area and the southern region are energized around this important economic development issue,” he said. “There has been a very favorable response overall. I don’t think positions taken at the Republican convention will have much effect on us at all.”
Even Rubens doubts the disagreement will hurt Lamontagne.
“I haven’t seen this featured in his public presentations,” Rubens said of Lamontagne’s pro-gaming position.
Rubens said Lamontagne and Democratic nominee Maggie Hassan have said they would accept only one New Hampshire casino.
“Both candidates for governor are proposing one and one only,” Rubens said.
This would be the first time New Hampshire has had a governor willing to undertake or test gaming expansion, Spiliotes said.
Hassan hasn’t committed to putting a casino at Rockingham Park, but would allow one to be established in New Hampshire through a bid process.
Rubens pointed to a poll last spring by Dartmouth College that said many Democrats also are opposed to expanded gaming. The poll showed Democrats opposing casinos 44 percent to 35 percent, he said.
The Democratic Party’s 2012 platform, published on the party website, is silent on the subject.
Norris said the issue is nonpartisan.
“We have Republicans, Democrats, independents and perhaps Libertarians in our group,” he said.
Corrow also speculated the GOP platform dispute won’t hurt Lamontagne.
“It really doesn’t matter,” Corrow said. “This whole gambling issue goes back and forth, forth and back.”
Rich Killion, a spokesman for Millenium Gaming, which hopes to put a casino at Rockingham Park, sees the positions of the gubernatorial nominees as more important than the party platform.
“The fact of the matter is both gubernatorial candidates have a plan and approach for limited casino gaming in New Hampshire,” Killion said.
Salem Democratic Committee chairman Larry Disenhof said the Republican platform could raise questions about GOP candidates down the ballot.
“If nowhere else in the state, this is important to Salem,” Disenhof said.
This past legislative session. state representatives followed their party’s lead more than the needs of Salem, he said.
“Where does their allegiance lie?” Disenhof asked.